Jesus’ juxtaposition of Leviticus 19 and the Shema is profound. The Pharisees who heard the Leviticus portion in that moment would have known the entire passage, not just the portion Jesus quoted. Our Rite 1 liturgy includes the Summary of the Law, yet most of us fail to realize what precedes “love your neighbor as you love yourself” – “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.” Jesus’ teaching on prayer echoes this: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
In Sister Joan Chittister’s book The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century, she offers a daily reading of the Rule of St. Benedict and her commentary on it. Benedict of Nursia lived in the late 5th century in Italy and set down a rule for living in community in the last days of the Roman Empire. We Anglicans have a close connection with St. Benedict. Benedictine monastic communities were very influential in pre-Reformation England and their influence continues even today. St. Benedict was very clear that our spiritual life was to be lived out in community – we were not to flee to the desert or hole up somewhere. We are to live in community and to worship God through communal prayer (which influenced the development of our Book of Common Prayer), scripture recitation (as most people could not read back then), and the sacramental life.
Part of Benedict’s rule was the idea that the monastery you entered would be the monastery in which you died and to always keep death before you as a solemn reminder of the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. Benedict knew that living in community is hard – disagreements are bound to happen, other people will annoy you and you will annoy other people. Benedict, in his wisdom, knew that if you had a disagreement someone, our human tendency is to “cut and run” – to leave the community or relationship and find another one. Benedict, with no modern knowledge of family systems or psychology, knew if you left the monastery without having reconciled with your fellow monks or nuns, invariably you would go to another monastery and … lo and behold … have another disagreement with a monk or nun there … usually over similar issues which drove you from the prior monastery! History repeats itself, behavior replicates itself and there is no reconciliation or opportunity for spiritual growth when we run away. Running away does not produce spiritual depth – it keeps you spiritually stunted and immature. We can act pious and holy all we want, but unless we do the hard work of reconciliation then our faith is a sham. And reconciliation is hard work involving contrition (genuinely understanding the damage you have done and feeling sorry for your actions), confession (admitting your wrongdoing), repentance (taking action to turn away from what you have done) and amendment of life (making the changes necessary so that you don’t repeat the harm done to others). Christianity is a demanding faith! Merely acting pious isn’t what our faith is about. As Sister Joan writes: “It is so comforting to multiply the practices of the church in our life and so inconvenient to have to meet the responsibilities of the communities in which we live.”
Living in community with other people is hard. It’s easy to say we love our neighbors in the abstract – it is much harder to put it into practice. In fact, I think Jesus’ command to love our enemies is often easier. We often push enemies away and keep them out of our lives. It’s easy to love in the abstract at arm’s length. It is much harder to love up close where we hurt each other in real and tangible ways. Loving our neighbor – our next door neighbor (whose dog barks incessantly and who won’t do anything about it), or members of our congregation (who don’t see things my way or just bug me), or community leaders (who don’t listen to my concerns), or your priest (who just doesn’t get it) … it’s hard, isn’t it? In each case what makes it hard is the pride of our own small egos which seek the self rather than the good of the other. Letting go of the ego is the way of the cross.
As Episcopalians, we inherit this Anglican/Benedictine way of being in community. Being in community means loving God and neighbor – which by extension means letting go of the need for right fighting, vengeance and holding grudges. It is a way of spiritual transformation which calls us into becoming more Christ-like – into becoming spiritual adults. As Sr. Joan states, “Adulthood is not a matter of becoming completely independent of the people who lay claim to our lives. Adulthood is a matter of being completely open to the insights that come to us from our superiors and our spouses, our children and our friends, so that we can become more than we can even begin to imagine for ourselves.” This is the transforming power of God – and it comes to us through our neighbors who are up close and in our face.
But are there neighbors with whom being in a relationship is not possible? What about those who threaten or abuse us? What about those who threaten the community? Well, neither Jesus nor Benedict would have condoned any behavior for the sake of loving your neighbor. Loving your neighbor is not the same as indulging your neighbor’s abuse. There are behaviors people inflict on us as individuals and the community which go beyond annoyances and simple grievances. Abuse, violence and threats are behaviors which cannot be tolerated for the sake of maintaining relationship. While we can reject specific behaviors and call those who threaten and abuse to repentance, they may not respond to that call. This does not mean we cannot love them – but we may need to do so from a safe distance unless and until they can do the hard work of amending their lives and actively seeking reconciliation with us.
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself …” Holding and bearing grudges prevents us from being the loving people God has shaped us to be. We cannot love God and harbor hatred for the people God loves. We cannot presume that our dislike or even hatred of another person is how God feels about them. Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength only comes with the spiritual gift of humility to love the very people God loves too. Remember, while there are people you know who seem very unlovable … there are people who feel the same way about you. None of us is lovable all the time.
It is into this reality where grace enters. As St. Paul reminds us in Romans 5:8: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” When we are at our worst and most unlovable, God comes to us. That radical, undeserved, unmerited love has the power to move our hearts to love our neighbors … even the ones hardest to love. This isn’t easy work – Jesus knew that, Benedict knew that and you know it too. But we undertake it, quite imperfectly to be sure, because in doing so we experience grace, mercy and healing in action not abstraction. Laying down our egos, our long nurtured grudges, self-righteous anger and resentments, and seeking the way of love is the way of the cross through which we find fullness of life in Christ.